Max Scherzer, 21-game winner for the Detroit Tigers and soon to be Cy Young Award winner as well, was breezing, completely overpowering the Boston Red Sox in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.
In seven innings he allowed two hits and no runs. He struck out 13. He had a no-hitter into the sixth inning.
So why did manager Jim Leyland pull him from the game?
“He was spent,” Leyland explained. “He threw 108 pitches.”
So Leyland turned to his bullpen, and a 5-0 lead turned into a 6-5 loss. The Tigers, who would have headed home with a 2-0 series lead, had to settle for being even.
Reporters rushed to Scherzer thinking he would be disappointed – perhaps even mad as hell – that Leyland had removed him when he had such total command of the game – if not of the series itself.
But Scherzer agreed with Leyland and his pitching coach. He insisted the change was his idea, or that at least the feeling was mutual. “I told them I was done. They had it all lined up, how they wanted to approach the eighth inning. I was not going out there for the eighth inning. I knew I was at my pitches. I knew I was reaching the end. My arm was getting tired.”
How times have changed. When Nolan Ryan was in his late 30s, the Houston Astros slapped a pitch count on him. Any time he reached 100 pitches, that was to be his last inning, whether he had a shutout or a no-hitter going. Ryan was furious about the pitch count, which deprived him of numerous wins.
But by the mid-1990s, pitchers were seeking relief. Terry Collins, when he was managing the Astros, complained of Greg Swindell “looking into the dugout, hoping I would take him out. I told him, ‘Keep pitching and stop looking over here.’”
Collins’ successor as Astros manager, Larry Dierker, pitched in the 1960s and ‘70s, when pitchers completed most of the games they won. He shocked the Astros pitchers by urging them to go at least eight innings.
“A good pitcher can pitch well even when he’s a little tired,” Dierker said. His starting pitchers actually improved their performance with his extended-innings approach. Once they tried it they liked it.
A decade ago, it was understood that in the postseason the starters would pitch longer and on shorter rest than usual. Because, hey, this was the postseason. You sucked it up.
There were postseason games where Randy Johnson and Jack Morris were ashen-faced from battling the flu, and they still went eight or nine innings, throwing 120 pitches. They would have fought anyone who tried to take them out when they were leading.
It wasn’t about personal glory, it was about winning the game.
Who would you rather have on the mound? Max Scherzer at 90% or Jose Veras at 100%?